On Responding to the Interacting Crises of Our Times – Ecology, Economy and Society’
New York University, Tuesday 24th September 2019
Tá áthas orm bheith libh. Thank you for your warm welcome.
May I thank in particular Dr Andrew Hamilton, President of NYU, Professor Kevin Kenny, Professor of History and Glucksman Professor in Irish Studies at NYU, as well as Ms Lynne Browne, Senior Vice-President for University Relations and Public Affairs, also of NYU, and Loretta B. Glucksman, Chairperson of the American-Ireland Fund who is co-hosting this evening’s event.
I very much enjoy returning to an academic environment, having been a university teacher for the greatest part of my career, a position which, for me, was so rewarding and enriching.
It was in 1966 that I made my first visit to the United States. It was as a postgraduate student, to Indiana University, to be part of the Indianapolis Area Project. It was exciting to be a recipient of a post-graduate opportunity, to have access to a vast array of books, journals, contemporary published work. I was, and remain, grateful for the opportunity I was given. It was during the Vietnam War.
In the social sciences, young students like myself from abroad were encouraged from home to concentrate on development theory and practice. Thus would begin my encounter with modernisation theory, pillared as it was on such founding texts as the Princeton Studies of Almond and Verba, Huntingdon, Lucien Pye, McClelland and others.
Through this culturally ethnocentric, linear and reductionist prism, one was invited to study the sources of one’s peoples’ backwardness, cultural and human impediments to economic growth and development.
A sophisticated version spoke of a spectrum that ran from ‘backwardness’ – defined as an agriculturally based economy, rural society, authoritarian structures, low achievement orientation, traditionally oriented – and at the other end of the spectrum was ‘developed status’: industrialised, urbanised, high achievement orientation, individualised decisions, a culture that was monetised, consumer-driven, open to modernity.
Right through my teaching, I have often recalled how Orlando Fals Borda, had put it and of how apt was the title of his essay, “The Ideological Glasses of North Americans Studying South America”. Modernisation Theory was the hegemonic, indeed perhaps the sole, model of change taught and promoted.
It took decades for it to be replaced by any of the theories based on uneven development, dependency theory, or any of the structural theories as to sources of imbalance in trade debt, aid, or of the abuse by multinationals of extractive industries. Being a university teacher and researcher enabled me to, however slowly, make a critique of the Modernisation Theory assumptions. In between I had been at Manchester University where Norman Long would be among those to formalise a devastating critique of Modernisation Theory.
University is a special place – not only as a hallowed seat of learning, but, even more importantly as a potential space of emancipation for the university experience has the power to transform individual lives through that opening of the mind that comes from exposure to good reasoning, teaching and a shared education. For many of us from poorer backgrounds, it was too what we saw as a necessary means of escape to the possibilities of fulfilment for ourselves and others.
Beyond the personal, in its impact on society, pluralist, empathetic university teaching and research has the wider potential of transforming and enriching societies, stimulating culture, and improving the cohesive and inclusive functioning of economies and their service to society. Universities have a crucial role in helping students to develop their skills and knowledge, and thus provide an important basis for a broader and potentially emancipatory understanding of the interconnectedness of our social-ecological systems.
Students must have space to grow morally and give exercise to an energetic imagination, while at university, yes to benefit from introduction to the tools of respectful reasoning, but also to retain that contribution that flows from the music of the heart. The curiosities of experience shared, which will in time mean the sedimentation that becomes memory. It is about so much more than training to make oneself useful. Those values of the university experience to which I have made reference are undermined, overtly and covertly, by the imposition in contemporary circumstances of an uncritical compliance with extreme neo-utilitarianism.
This week I have travelled to the United States as President of Ireland to address the United Nations’ 74th Session of the General Assembly and to open a UN Summit of Small Island Developing States which Ireland co-hosts (with Fiji). A range of important summits are taking place in the UN, including summits on climate action, finance for developing countries, health, and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is in preparing my remarks for these that has led me to reflect back through my teaching, writing and study to ask once again what the connection might be between what I was hearing of new challenges and what universities are now doing, in terms of teaching and research, what their contribution might best be.
Such events at the U.N., as those to which I have referred, underscore the importance that attaches to the UN and the multilateral system and, as President of Ireland may I confirm that Ireland attaches great significance to such events and to the UN itself.
It is almost 75 years since the founding of the United Nations, and I wish to begin my address with a brief reflection as to the UN’s role in our modern world. As I have said Ireland believes profoundly in the United Nations. Like the United Nations itself, modern Ireland came out of conditions of conflict. Ireland’s escape from a colonial past was long and painful, thus our history is one which allows us to empathise with so many countries in the United Nations. Like them, our UN membership, too, has shaped our development.
The sense of a shared responsibility through such an institution has guided and continues to guide Ireland’s view of the world and informs the part we try to play in it. The world for which we have responsibility is increasingly an interdependent world, and the global challenges we now face emphasise this as they do not respect any geographical boundaries. It is now a world too of shared consequences where the initiators of actions with destructive consequences are neither the most proximate or greatest victims.
The United Nations as our single global institution has a central and unique role in tackling the great challenges we face as a global community today. That role includes galvanising multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and social inclusion. The UN, as a shared space of discourse and decision-making, has the power to play an enormously positive, transformative role in the lives of the peoples of the world, particularly those most vulnerable. Yes, it is an institution that has flaws but it remains the location of our best prospects for responsible, intergenerational, co-operative discourse and source of principled internationalism.
The founding of the United Nations was greeted with much enthusiasm in 1945. Its membership at the beginning was small and would greatly expand particularly in the periods of decolonisation. Hopes were high.
In recent times, however, the United Nations has suffered from a sustained campaign of criticism. Some of it fair and so much more, however, is unjust and comes from an insidious agenda. Those who believe in the UN are forever being forced, called upon, to find new ways to show that its work is relevant, that what the UN does is making a critical difference to the citizens of the world’s most impoverished and unstable countries – all of this within the context of a competition for news space in the modern sound-bite driven media age of clickbait headlines that feed on shrinking attention spans.
We now need, for our collective welfare and with a sense of inter-generational justice in our minds, the emergence and growth of an inclusive, supportive United Nations movement, a movement of global citizens that can deal with these urgent circumstances and contemporary challenges.
It may be useful in this regard to review, draw attention to, however briefly, at the outset, what is indeed shown to be possible with cooperation, hard work, imagination, and patience, when shared, and on what can be achieved when the peoples represented by the United Nations are united.
I suggest that perhaps the greatest manifestation of this unity of recent times is the very positive adoption in 2015 of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda, as well as the subsequent Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
In both instances, in the drafting and adoption of these instruments we see a unified consciousness that flows beyond borders: peoples and their governments from around the world dealing with global issues. It is built on an acceptance that these existential issues, require global responses and a spirit of meaningful co-operation in actions taken together.
Of course, in this regard it would be remiss of me not to state my profound disappointment at the United States’ decision to exit the Paris Agreement. I do urge the United States Government to revisit and reconsider this decision to exit the Paris Agreement, a decision which could take effect from November next year.
Failure to take radical, urgent action in relation to climate change that will effectively subject future generations to an existence of threat in an ever more bleak and volatile planet, and in human terms one that is likely to lead to the forced displacement of millions of people including those at the front line in small island developing countries who will bear the most serious and immediate consequences of the dysfunctional paradigm of connection that prevails between our current ecosystem, our economic practices, and our ever-deepening inequalities in our societies at home and abroad.
Climate change is the most pressing issue facing us all as a global community, as inhabitants of a planet that is in peril, owing to the insatiable, unrestricted consumption of the Earth’s finite natural resources since the onset of the most intense, accelerated period of the Anthropocene, an onset that has so greatly accelerated in recent history.
Dangerous shifts in climate are placing stress on communities, where ecosystems can no longer support populations, leading to a decline in, and ultimate lack of, resources for living. This in turn contributes to conflict, violence and forced migration.
Unless we collectively take action to prevent catastrophic climate change, together with a real commitment and transfer of resources towards assisting communities to prepare for, and adapt to, changing climates, these population flows, driven by climate shifts, will take place in a context of old revived and emerging new conflicts becoming available to be exploited by extremists.
Basic morality suggests that it is indefensible that another 100 million people be doomed to extreme poverty by 2030 should we fail to honour the commitment to tackle climate change. The need for collective action addressing the climate crisis becomes more evident every month. The defence of previous generations that ‘we did not know’ is a defence that will not be available to any of us in relation to climate change.
We must not forget ever that policies are sourced in assumptions, ideas as to how economies function, are connected with change and society. Our prevailing neoliberal paradigm, of that connection is one that privileges an abstract hegemony of market theory. It constitutes an ideology that is, inter alia, opposed to regulation, and inimical to an intervening role of the state.
This version of economics has dominated policy for almost four decades, has been shown from the perspective of its social outcomes , empirically researched to have deepened inequality, impacted negatively on the poorest, but also from an ecological perspective, it makes achieving sustainability near impossible. It is built on an assumption of accelerated and extended growth. It leaves existing consumption models unrevised.
A radical paradigm shift is required in the connection between ecology, economics and citizens. The mere placing of a new lens on the existing orthodox model will not suffice. If we are to achieve a paradigm shift it will be necessary to combine the radicalism that is in the consciousness of climate activism, with the consciousness of egalitarianism and the programmes of inclusion activists.
In an attempt to offer a positive contribution, I suggest that all of the prevailing ruling concepts in our present political economy discourse – flexibility, globalisation, productivity, innovation, social protection, decent work – are capable of being re-defined, given a realisable meaning, within a new paradigm, and thus given a shared moral resonance, can be made useful within the context of a new ecological-social paradigm, such as that being advocated by scholars such as Professor Ian Gough of the London School of Economics, Kate Raworth of Oxford University, Mariana Mazzucato and others.
Their approach offers a new, recovered version of political economy, and I would suggest that all third-level institutions, including New York University, would facilitate it being taught across the social sciences and thus enable such an integrated sustainable paradigm become available to inform policy.
Consideration of a new ecological-social paradigm, based on economic heterodoxy, recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate crisis. It is, in my view, a better programme in the syllabus in terms of both heterodox economics, engaged social theory, and practice.
In his book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, Professor Ian Gough outlines how the alternative paradigm is rooted in the concept of human need over greed, moving away from models of insatiable consumption, unrestricted accumulation being taken as inevitabilities that are unavoidable, or indeed as appropriate to be offered to others.
The paradigm advanced by Professor Gough and others advocates for gender equality, redistribution, and a reconfigured social consumption and, crucially, for an investment strategy that transfers resources and technology from rich countries to developing countries as some of the key means by which to achieve versions of an eco-social welfare state. The scholarship brings these projects together in an inter-disciplinary method and a shared consciousness.
The eco-social policies that underpin such an economic paradigm must, in the short to medium term, simultaneously pursue both equity/social justice and sustainability/sufficiency goals within an activist innovation state, with substantial public investment and greater regulation and planning.
Furthermore, a transition in equitable terms being so important, socio-economic measures are also required in the short and medium term to offset any adverse or regressive impacts of the ecological transition for lower income groups (such as, for example, unemployment resulting from the closure of legacy industries) and to reverse growing levels of inequality.
As to society there is a powerful new sociological literature emerging that supports this change in theory, practice, policy and life itself. Professor Hartmut Rosa of Jena University builds on the paradigm, arguing for the need for society to move away from ‘consuming’ the world to ‘experiencing’ it and ‘resonating’ with it.
For quality of life cannot be measured simply in terms of resources, opinions, and moments of happiness; instead, we must consider our relationship to, or resonance with, the world, or as Rosa puts it in his book, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World:
“from the act of breathing to the adoption of culturally distinct worldviews. All the great crises of modern society – ecological, democratic, psychological – can be understood and analysed in terms of resonance and our broken relationship to the world around us”.
This, I believe, is a valuable contribution to the inter-disciplinary task of understanding the complex sources of, as I would put it ‘belonging in the world’; a significant step towards a sociology of ‘belonging’.
I believe this “catastrophe of resonance”, to quote Rosa, which we have witnessed in modern times, is constituted by a growing narcissism, aggressive individualism and an emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation, all of which is such a far cry from the social justice, solidarity and fairness principles that underpin the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and indeed is so contradictory of so many other landmarks such as the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia which resulted in modern labour laws that the International Labour Organisation (itself celebrating its centenary this year) has fought so hard over the years to uphold and build upon.
We must never underestimate the strength of the resources of those who will oppose a paradigm shift, such as that of which I speak, to what is sustainable, redistributive, more inclusive, empathetic, humane. Their resources, those holding largely unaccountable power, are immense, at times overt, often covert, subtle, sophisticated in their influence and propaganda.
The opponents of the eco-social movement are not only rich, they are often quite brilliant, adept at recognising a new instrument. This has consequences, even as to the discourse itself at the UN and elsewhere we have had important concepts, pieces of language itself stolen. ‘Freedom’, for example, to which all of the planet’s oppressed, excluded and dominated people aspired, has been expressed and reconstituted by some as ‘freedom of the market’, not freedom from hunger, avoidable diseases, or polluted water sources, but freedom to accumulate without responsibility, regulation or ethics.
In the area of communications, freedom of expression itself has given way to a freedom that includes a freedom, that allows the achievement of monopoly of ownership in what was previously a public space of discourse served in its day by public service broadcasting for example.
In recent times we have even had the concept of ‘sustainability’ stolen from us. Sustainability of our very existence as a living planet became transacted as a form of ‘financial sustainability’ denoting something that need not threaten the continuation of multinational enterprises’ practices.
I was in Rio at the UN Conference on Economy and Development in 1992 and saw how the Business Council for Sustainable Development emerged and was given full status as a participating member. Those island and atoll citizens affected by rising sea levels had to be content with a welcome on the Greenpeace Ship.
In protecting our concepts and language, authenticity should be the test of our words, an authenticity defined in collective achievement rather than in any individualised narcissism, and also measured by the consistency with which it is delivered in action. This means that we must be vigilant, combative even, in not allowing our better efforts, their delivery in concepts and language, to be corrupted by the powerful and distorted in presentation, our shared discourses thus rendered useless, and our hopes for harmony dashed.
To achieve the best possible outcomes we will, as will others, benefit from us all respecting the essential courtesies of dialogue, difference, agreement and debate. Should it not be concern to us all that our discourses are now once again soured by a hateful and divisive rhetoric? Academics and public intellectuals can play a critical role in supporting a standard of truth and civility for the current and emerging discourse, giving space to discussion on authenticity of word and deed generally, and specifically on issues such as the appropriate most inclusive interpretation and response to humanitarian crises, concepts of freedom and sustainability.
It is surely more than sad that so many academics and public intellectuals, have as Professor Rosa might put it, been made ‘mute’, have drifted, or have been seduced, into a cosy consensus that rationalises a failed paradigm of society and economy, and choose not to see that the distortion of scholarship that is involved in the marginalising and suppression of critical, even pluralistic teaching, and how thus the possibility of alternative futures, alternatives in physical sciences, the social sciences, culture and philosophy are lost.
Universities face a great challenge in the questions that are posed now, new existential questions that go much deeper than the previous demands made on them in terms of responding to the previous versions of neo-liberalism.
This ‘averting of the gaze’ has had, and continues to have, an impact on the quality of intellectual enquiry and on the public sphere, through a limitation of policy options that might address current and future challenges.
I do realise, however, and am happy to acknowledge that the definition of scholar as primarily ‘a funding gatherer’, and the consequences for universities that has followed, has led to universities creating a new precariat, made insecure, denied the stability or collegiality needed for good teaching, research, public engagement.
Indeed, I believe academics have an ethical obligation as an educated elite to take a stand against the increasingly aggressive orthodoxies and discourse of the marketplace that have permeated all aspects of life, including practices within academia.
Is it not as important for our students as well as ourselves to experience the development of the self and one’s connection to citizenship and history, one’s resonance and belonging with the world, as it is to become a useful unit in a consuming culture? Universities function within a culture, and how they critique, reflect and negotiate that relationship defines their ethos and output. It is how they will be judged.
The role of academics, and particularly those involved in the public sphere, it could be argued, is to seize moments and have the courage to provoke reaction. As Edward Said put it, an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge.
This mission will often mean standing outside of society and its institutions and, at times, actively disturbing the status quo. It also involves placing a strong emphasis on intellectual rigour and ideas, while ensuring that governing authorities and international intermediary organisations are well-resourced. Mind work is important. As Immanuel Kant put it, many years ago,
“Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”
As to a methodology for change - how we measure our society, its constituent parts, its exclusions, achievements and failures, and whether we are fair and empirically rigorous is of scholarly, indeed democratic, importance. Recent developments in the global poverty debate, is a useful illustration of current practice, including the use and abuse of measurements and interventions.
May I offer the example of measuring the reduction of poverty. In October 2015, the World Bank updated the international poverty line, a global absolute minimum, to $1.90 a day. By this measure, the United Nations estimates that the percentage of the global population living in absolute poverty fell from over 80% in 1800 to 10% by 2015, thus leaving approximately 734 million people in absolute poverty.
While this is, ostensibly, a positive long-term trend, we must be careful not to let a tendentious presentation of such a measure be used for a particular ideological and insidious purpose. The so-called ‘New Optimists’ are among those who make such usage.
Invoking this measure, they offer a non-contextualised headline as to how we are winning the war on global poverty with the purpose of undermining the inequality discourse, and thus advertently or inadvertently rationalise a system that is one of growing inequality and social exclusion.
What do I mean by appropriate contextualisation? There is no empirical basis for the $1.90 poverty line in terms of its ability to satisfy basic human needs. It is arbitrary and meaningless as a measure of global poverty. People who live just above this line remain appallingly poor in every respect, with terribly high levels of malnutrition, infant mortality, and low life expectancy.
Economist David Woodward calculated that to live at this level of $1.90 would be equivalent to 35 people trying to survive in the United Kingdom on a single minimum wage, with no benefits of any kind, no borrowing or savings to draw on.
In fact, the World Bank – hardly a left-wing institution – has repeatedly stated that the $1.90 line is too low to be used in any but the very poorest countries and should not be used to inform policy. It has itself created new poverty lines for lower middle-income countries ($3.20/day) and upper middle-income countries ($5.50/day).
So, what happens when you use these measures? At these more realistic lines, some 2.4 billion people are in poverty today – more than three times higher than the ‘New Optimist’ narrative would have people believe.
These narratives, of us winning the battle against global poverty have, I repeat too often, the unstated aim of suggesting that we are “winning the war against global poverty”.
The narratives are well-funded by foundations and individual philanthropists, many who are well-meaning but who are lending themselves to the ideological suggestion that we are winning the war against global poverty under capitalism, so why should we have any structural change?
What I have said clearly suggests that we must also re-define those concepts and practices that made up what we have previously called ‘development’. For example, turning to the development challenges facing the continent of Africa – a continent in transition, the continent of the young – this is where much of the United Nations’ concentration will need to be in the decades ahead.
The historic under-representation from Africa needs to be addressed so that there can be a fair African say in UN Council decisions affecting the future of their own continent and our planetary survival together in harmony, and within a civilisation of sufficiency. Offering Africa a repetition of what has failed us is morally indefensible, in practical terms a disaster.
We must, alternatively, make the transfers of technology and resources that will enable Africans to choose their paradigm of sustainability and from their cultures to construct an ideology, consciousness and contemporary version of sufficiency.
As to particular challenges, it is well-understood that Africa continues to face the huge tasks of reducing poverty, poor education, ill health, violence, hunger and sustainable agriculture.
On matters of economy, access to finance remains a key problem, while overall real economic growth on a sufficiency basis is recognised as sub-optimal from any developmental perspective given the low base of economic activity.
I suggest that what is needed now is, in effect, nothing less than a form of ‘African Enlightenment’, a paradigm shift similar to those great intellectual paradigm shifts that were brought about from enlightenments in the past, such as that in Europe of the 18th century which reduced the authority of the monarchy and the Church, and which went on to pave the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The ideas that emerged challenged intellectual authoritarianism, with hypotheses, centred on reason and science as the primary source of knowledge, and ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state, along with increased questioning of the intellectual consequences an authoritarian orthodoxy—an attitude captured by the phrase, sapere aude (‘dare to know’).
An ‘African Enlightenment’ may I suggest can draw on sources deeper and richer than European 18th century rationalism, on a diversity of pre-imperialist sources of wisdom, as well as the energy that comes from being the continent of the young on our planet.
To enable such a development to occur requires us to rethink development models in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere, and emphasises the need to seize the possibilities of transformational change and be partners, partners with a listening capacity, as we offer our help in the efforts to build a sustainable future for the continent.
The key structural changes that are required in relation to Africa have been identified by Carlos Lopes and others. These include changing politics, respecting diversity, understanding policy space, (sustainable) industrialisation, increasing agricultural productivity, building a new social contract, adjusting to climate change, and inserting agency in the relationship with its key partners, especially China.
Whatever policy proposals that are made now and in the future must accept that it is past time that the residues of the imperialist mindset be eschewed from informing assumptions in policies, diplomacy and scholarship. We must get to a new place.
We have to craft anew the space of hope if we are to achieve change, and do it together, for we have seen in our world a profound erosion of solidarity. It is a value and test of our practices – the solidarity test – that we must re-establish urgently across our peoples.
Philosophers such as Charles Rorty have offered insights with regard to how societies can develop more solidarity with those less fortunate in a humanitarian context, and a human rights approach grounded in the notion of empathy offers hope.
Thinking in rationalist terms solely will not solve humanitarian problems. It is empathy that fills that gap that human rights practitioners in the field or at the front-line face when they encounter contradictions between their learned theoretical models and the demands for the urgently needed in response to crisis, an empathy that enables the practitioner to continue to function when models are failing.
Working within the human rights discourse and practice on the framing of a global sense of empathy, even teaching empathy in our curricula, so as to better understand others’ suffering would be so valuable, for it is clear that empathy is missing in so much of the discourse regarding humanitarianism and migration interventions. However, empathy in turn must have a point of reference and accountability.
We have other resources. There is a great resource in the literature on the capacities of ‘the wounded healer’. Available, too, is the great resource of those neglected ancient, shared cultural sources of crisis response, conflict prevention and resolution. Problem-solving is after all not a recently invented practice.
There is much to be recovered. It is undeniable that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans’ desire for natural resources, slave labour and political dominance disrupted the traditional ways and imposed their beliefs and social structures on colonised Africans, Latin Americans and so many others.
The long-term effects of this imperialism include widespread racial discrimination and economic exploitation, but also cultural suppression. Recognising that legacy would be a powerful preparation for a new beginning. It would be a clearing of the ground as it were for new work together.
The dissenting voice is a valuable voice and we should be encouraged by the fact that there have always been brave exceptions to the prevailing exploitations. It includes those who stood against the excesses of a European Enlightenment gone wrong, when it had lent itself to imperialism, colonisation, and indeed at times, genocide.
We can take that courage from an array of European political thinkers who attacked the very foundations of such imperialism, arguing passionately that empire-building was not only unworkable, costly and dangerous, but manifestly unjust. Thinkers such as Diderot, Kant, and Herder understood and developed an understanding of humans as inherently cultural agents and, therefore, necessarily diverse.
These thinkers rejected the conception of a culture-free ‘natural man’. They held that moral judgments of superiority or inferiority could be made neither about entire peoples nor about many distinctive cultural institutions and practices. Such arguments in turn enabled the era’s anti-imperialists to defend the freedom of non-European peoples, their right, to order their own societies. This continues to have a powerful resonance for us today as we face the developmental challenges in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
Such thinking, as they and we might have, interweaves commitments to universal moral principles and incommensurable ways of life, and is one that links the concept of a shared human nature with the idea of a fundamental human diversity. Such an intellectual temperament can so broaden our own perspectives about international justice and the relationship between human unity and diversity.
The good news is that good scholarship is under way. Alicia Bárcena-Ibarra, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, is among those scholars and practitioners who have spoken authoritatively on the practical challenges facing Africa, focusing on the role of technology and knowledge-sharing.
The paradigm shift needed to move towards a new development paradigm and to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, she argues, requires a new global and regional technological governance that focuses on capacities and knowledge. The governance of technology, and how it is to be structured, is crucial. History has shown us in so many examples that to achieve best, even benign results, market forces cannot be left to act on their own volition in this regard.
Co-operation, another of our neglected founding values, remains the great alternative to extreme individualism. It is also critical as an instrument for achieving long-lasting change and fairness, truth in communication. Collective action and cooperation are essential if we are to take advantage of, and give shape to, the technological revolution in such a way for it to be delivered for universal human benefit rather than as a means of aggression, or as a tool of war.
This means that a South-South resourced co-operation utilising modern modes of communication is fundamental and we should all welcome and assist it.
A considerable number of developing countries have developed capacities that can be shared for use by other countries. What is clear, however, is that the development of these transformations requires the joint work of governments, the private sector and civil society, to ensure that new trends are aligned with what is set forth in the 2030 Agenda and, importantly, that they are proofed as to purpose and delivery so that they do not, even inadvertently, produce or deepen greater inequality.
It is now 50 years since Irishman Erskine Barton Childers wrote so persuasively on the topic of development, social change and communication.
In a paper Childers wrote about the UN entitled, “Whose Whispers Are in the Gallery?”, he expanded on the importance of communication in the context of dangers facing the global village should it not actively foster greater knowledge and understanding of peoples and their aspirations beyond the frontiers of the West:
“If modern transnational public communication only perpetuates ignorance, strengthens disinformation, and exacerbates tensions, it may prove more dangerous to peace and the rule of international law than the world was without it”.
In a section of the paper entitled “Amnesia After Midnight”, Childers refers to a double amnesia in daily reports and commentaries on countries in the South. He describes how an amnesia exists that involves total forgetfulness on the part of the developed world of the condition in which the colonised developing world was left upon their regaining independence. It also involves forgetfulness of how long in some respects, and how very short in others, has been the comparable experience of developed countries themselves.
I emphasise this point on the importance of communication, as I believe it has become highly relevant in the current context of the re-emergence of stereotypical depictions of migrants and displaced individuals from poorer, developing parts of our planet, depictions that emanate too frequently from the destructive rhetoric of the most powerful seeking to galvanise vulnerable, often desperate and marginalised groups with a language of fear of the Other that is often racist, xenophobic and grounded in hatred, fear and ignorance.
These are depictions that have no basis in fact, rationality or reality, and that offend against our very humanity and that of others.
We now require actions – actions on climate, migration and broader development. However, humanitarian actions must not any longer be allowed to serve as any alternative sufficient response to crises that are political and structural in their origins. Humanitarian action is not a substitute for the crucial political dialogue and mediation, that must address structural change.
In conclusion then, allow me to repeat that what we now require is a new political economy, based on a pluralistically taught political, social and economic theory, one that moves from a sole reliance on extreme rationalism to policies derived from a paradigm incorporating human empathy, a paradigm that has sought and secured legitimacy among the citizenries, one that everyone comprehends, founded on principles of ethics, ecology and equality, one that will serve the interests of all and not the narrow interests of the few who benefit from our current doomed model based on insatiable consumption.
A sense of justice not only for now but for the future requires that the capacity and power of our residual sense of a shared humanity be invoked to give us the energy to reconnect our lives through a balanced relationship between ecology, ethics, economy, culture and a lived experience of fulfilment.
We must respond with urgency, or we run the risk of correctly being regarded by future survivors of our planet as having been in collusion with the destruction of the lives and life-worlds of some of the most vulnerable peoples of our human family and the biodiversity on which our planetary life depends.
Let us commit ourselves together to the mind work involved, to the music of the heart we share, so that we may anticipate, experience together the change and joy that will come to us and future generations in a sustainable, harmonious world.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.